COLUMBIA — Two eighth-grade students embraced one another in a tear-filled goodbye Friday afternoon at an Oakland Junior High assembly. The event marked the end of the final year the school will exist under its current name.
Elaine Apondi and Innova Garver both will attend Battle High School in the fall, but it didn't stop them from being emotional about the change. The girls are a part of the first Oakland eighth-grade class that will go straight to high school. Until now, the school has housed eighth and ninth grades..
"I'm really going to miss some of my friends and teachers," Apondi said.
Even with the sadness of leaving friends, Apondi said she isn't worried about the transition.
"I'm really neutral about it because either way I'll be going to high school," she said.
Columbia's three junior high schools — Oakland, West and Jefferson — are making the switch to middle schools starting next year as part of a restructuring of the school system that will reduce the number of transitions students make from four to three. The district now will have six middle schools and no junior highs.
As grades shift to different schools, so will some of the instructors. Joshua Johnson, a social studies teacher at Oakland for the past 13 years, is one of those staying behind and says it will take some time to adjust to the change.
"It's going to be really tough to see a lot of colleagues leave," Johnson said. "Some of these people I've worked with for 10 to 13 years, and it's tough to see them go because you build these relationships, and you work as a team and, you know, it's sad."
The shift to a middle school structure also brings logistical challenges.
"It's going to be a lot of curriculum change because sixth and seventh grades we've never taught here in the building," Johnson said. "We're going to have to learn as we go, build the airplane as we're flying it."
Johnson's comments highlight the concern many of his co-workers have over teaching younger students.
John Becker teaches Spanish at Oakland. "Moving down to teach sixth and seventh grades is a change," he said. "Teachers are used to receiving students with expectations set, and now we'll be the ones setting them."
Despite the adjustments required, many teachers at Oakland view the change positively. "I like teaching younger students," Johnson said. "They're still eager and willing to try new things, and learning is fresh."
Teachers and students are excited for the new challenge and are taking it in stride.
"Hopefully we'll pull together, and it'll be good," Johnson said. "With great change comes great opportunity."
West Junior High
At West Junior, English Department Chair Lily Long is retiring along with 10 other teachers this year. This year's transition, she said, presented an opportune time to say goodbye.
"Along with a couple of other excuses, like my granddaughters, it seemed like a appropriate time," Long said. "I had originally planned on staying, because once you help start a program, you want to see it through. We've had a lot of great teachers that have been instrumental to the programs."
The switch from a junior high to a middle school has affected both teachers and students.
"A lot of teachers and I have tried to help support the eighth graders more, be someone they can talk to or even give them an extra pat on the back," Long said. "They would normally have another year in the building. For the 9th graders, they are ready for the transition to high school because it's the normal process. I think the school system is moving in the right direction though, moving from four transitions to three."
Along with the students, many of the teachers will be moving as well. Long said 57 teachers will be leaving the school in some way by changing schools or retiring.
"It's hard because it's like breaking up a family," Long said. "It's much more emotional for the teachers than the students, because they would be leaving for summer break anyways. As teachers, we see the finality."
Jefferson Junior High
At Jefferson Junior, many of the students carried drawings and messages of congratulations. They hugged each other. It was noon at the school, but this was a different sort of day, not only because it was the last day of class but also because next fall Jefferson will become a middle school.
Greg Cain, who has been principal at Jefferson for six years, said the school district has been working on restructuring the schools for about five years. Next year, he will become principal of a school hosting sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
The challenge will be especially difficult at Jefferson because several staff members are retiring or moving to high schools.
“The biggest challenge is building community,” Cain said.
Business teacher Diane Smith has decided to retire after 32 years at Jefferson. She spent her last day teaching a business class for eighth- and ninth-graders.
Smith agreed with Cain that the biggest challenge will be building a community among the new students and teachers. She expects it will take at least a semester, and perhaps an entire school year, to do so.
Jefferson's eighth-grade students smiled and said they were excited about the change. Loga Reateer, Noah Jackson and Kian Pilot, who play football, will go to Rock Bridge next year. They wore short pants and sneakers.
“It's never happened before. We will be the first to do it,” Reateer said. They have searched the clubs they want to join.
The transition will bring a lot of changes because junior highs and middle schools have different educational models.
“In the junior high model, you can put classes together. In the middle school it is team-based,” Cain said. For example, all the sixth-grade classes next year could be on the second floor.
Jodi Rowe, who is the girls basketball and volleyball coach, has been at Jefferson for 16 years. She also studied at Jefferson years ago.
Rowe said she will continue to teach at Jefferson next fall. For her, trying to build a good program for sixth-, seventh- and eighth grades will definitely be a challenge. “The sixth-graders dealing with the eighth-graders in the same building is just kind of weird.”
“The next two years will be tough for the teachers, staff and students," Rowe said, "but in a long term it is going to be the best thing for everybody.”
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.